Tuesday, May 31, 2016

when eugenics succeeds.

Dog breeds are weird.

Humans have had a fair bit of trouble trying to classify our differences. At its most benign, doing so cloaks bigotry in the language of science, giving a false veneer of impartiality to our natural tendency to dehumanize others based on cultural differences. And, of course, once you've convinced yourself--using only the finest scientific analysis, obviously--that you know what "superior" and "inferior" look like, the logical next step is to start selectively breeding for human traits. As you do this, you can, naturally, assume that God is on your side.

This is eugenics, which has caused suffering ranging from forced sterilization, to genocide, to the various Khan Noonien Singh crises. It's bad stuff.

All this stuff that we correctly abhor with humans, though, we very successfully do with domesticated animals. For the fully-urbanized 90% of us who didn't grow up around farms, dogs are the best example of this. (Cats aren't quite domesticated, nor are most of them carefully bred.) And the breed of dog matters, even more than I thought.

I first encountered this when I lived with a girlfriend and her family and their two Old English Sheepdogs. The younger one was dumb as a post, but at one point my girlfriend referred to the older one's "herding certification." I asked if they'd taught him herding, and she said no, that's what they're bred for, and by and large you can just turn them loose on a bunch of sheep or flightless ducks or whatever, and they'll do their herding thing.

My parents' dog could only be described as "deep yellow, even the eyes," and while he was friendly and patient like a Lab, his temperament was really sui generis, since you could not get him to chase or play, for love or money. He was easy to narrate, and any attempt at playing Fetch always had him looking at you with a distinct "Why are you throwing that ball? Are you going to get the ball? I'm not getting the ball. I'm going to sit here, where I'm comfortable and not moving" kind of gaze.

My brother had a pair of Springer Spaniels, because Reasons™ (I was not a fan), and true to breed, they grew out of their Puppy Phase after a decade or so.

Then, in our dog search, we met Luca, a curious small dog reported as half Italian Greyhound (never heard of it) and half Tibetan Spaniel (never heard of it). Greyhounds are "sight-hounds," which means they basically can't smell all that well and they were bred to track things visually. I'd never spent time with such a thing, but we went on a walk with Luca, and sure enough, he was all eyes, constantly looking around, only rarely stopping for a sniff.

So Leela, as best anyone can tell, is some majority of Jack Russell Terrier, then some Beagle, and then some Chihuahua. She has a Beagle's tail, ears, and articulated wailing that can sound like human syllables, but most conspicuous is the Jack Russell, because when she plays with something floppy, like her stuffed gorilla, she looks just like this:

And she runs around like this, on the rare occasions she plays:

And she sleeps exactly like this:

On the Beagle end of things, besides the tail and the face, she gets her piteous wailing:

To say nothing of keeping the head down and following a scent, conceivably into the road or running off somewhere they can't find their way back from.

My friend Jess told me a little bit about prey drive a while back, but mostly in the context of how her dog is a bit of a challenge to work with. I didn't know that the energy of working dogs--and their need to work somehow, or else destroy your house out of boredom--actually comes from breeding to emphasize different aspects of prey drive. Herding dogs have a genetic drive to herd things. Leela has a genetic drive to grab something rodent-sized and shake it to break its neck.

Think about how remarkable this is. All our experience with humans tells us that every population of Homo sapiens has more or less the same distribution of innate abilities, and while there are still plenty of people who will say "Oh, you adopted your daughter from China! I bet she'll be good at math," the number keeps shrinking.

With dogs, though, this is an actual thing. The most freakish of greyhounds won't out-smell a normal beagle, and you cannot reasonably expect a purebred Labrador Retriever not to be eager to please, kinda dopey in their enthusiasm (hiding other kinds of intelligence), and really excited to chase things.

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